After two days in Marrakesh I’d noticed that moped riders plough through crowded souks without a care for pedestrians, and there were a lot of birds inside buildings. The first was proving to be a pain in the arse. We’d been doing what is meant to be the big experience of the city, walking through all those narrow lanes of tiny shops and rackety stalls, halfway curious about craftware and clothes on display. We resisted offers to look more closely, reckoning we probably would buy something but not sure what. It might have been a pleasure, but at least once a minute a moped sneaked through the crowd moving fast enough to risk someone being injured. Mostly you could hear them coming, but occasionally one squirmed silently from behind, a handlebar or rider’s elbow brushing a hip and prompting a flinch and a curse. Ellie squeezed my arm.
“I don’t like this,” she said. “I want to go back to the riad.”
“We’re not far from the museum. I think it’s just a little further up then to the left.”
“I know where we are. The riad’s close.”
She pointed through an alley to our right, towards a narrow road with the frontage of a bureau de change. Turn left there and it was a hundred yards to the riad where we were staying.
“Well we can do an hour in the museum then go back.”
“I’ve had enough. I want to lie down.”
I felt a twitch of irritation. She had done this the previous day, dragged me back before I was ready to go. I stopped for a moment. It must have been the sigh that prompted her suggestion.
“I can find my way back easily. You go to the museum and take your time. I’d rather give up for the afternoon.”
I looked at my watch. It was three-thirty, which gave me a couple of hours that I might enjoy better alone. That came with a twinge of guilt, but she smiled, insisted she would be OK, gave me a quick kiss then broke away. I watched her squeeze through a group of tourists, and admitted I was pleased at the prospect of enjoying the museum in my own time. Ellie always said she was interested in the cultural sites of a city, but always wanted to give up earlier in the day than me, wanting a drink and a chance to sit and read. And she had admitted the previous day that she wished we had booked a hotel with a pool rather than a riad with the rooftop garden. I carried on, squeezing through a continual crowd, avoiding a couple more mopeds, realising I hadn’t been quite where I thought and getting briefly lost before finding the road that led to the museum. As I turned into its courtyard entrance a moped swept out and missed me by inches.
The rider ignored me but a couple of other tourists noticed. I felt a moment of embarrassment and glad that they were coming out rather than going in. I paid the entrance fee, entered the main building and saw that the corridor to the left was roped off with a sign in Arabic, French and English. This wing closed for restoration. It prompted another surge of irritation. I went back out to the ticket desk and complained. The guy pointed at a sign erected off to the left, warning that half of the museum was currently closed. I groaned, looked back at him and said: “Full price?” He shrugged. For a moment I thought about demanding a refund, but guessed I would get nowhere and decided I should see what I could.
I spent half an hour looking at ornaments, scripts, pictures and details of mosaic walls and archways, but didn’t take any pleasure from it. The mopeds in the souk had wound me up, the business with the ticket made me worse, and I was annoyed at Ellie for giving up on the day, even though she hadn’t insisted that I go back with her. And there were the things that had been souring my mood at home. A small bird fluttered past my head and settled on an indoor ledge, and again I was surprised how many found their way inside. I walked through an open door into a small garden, crossed to another room, found it empty and took a seat by a wall where I couldn’t be seen from outside. Maybe there would be moments of relief in the solitude.
I tried to let my mind settle, but it drifted to thoughts of work, the business downturn and office politics that were getting worse and making me want to leave what had been a good job. There was the trouble with the service charge on the flat, the unexpected bill for seven thousand on window frames that would take over half of our savings. We wouldn’t have booked the holiday if that had come along first. There was the series of literary agents who didn’t want to know about my second completed novel, even though I was sure it was better than any of those knocked out by TV celebrities or washed out politicians. I wasn’t being picked for the football team any more and wasn’t consoled by the suggestion that I would be good in the local veterans’ league. And there were those bloody mopeds. I wasn’t in a holiday mood.
I heard a quiet but shrill noise – Chepeep! Chepeep! – and saw a small pair of wings flutter across the room and settle on a feature that looked like half a flower bowl fixed high up the adjacent wall. I stared at a small brown bird, having no idea which type it was, waiting for another cheep. It stayed silent until I let my eyes look down, then did it again. Chepeep! Chepeep! I looked up at it.
“Have you come in here to wind me up?”
It waited a moment, then replied with another round of Chepeep! Chepeep! That made me smile. I looked closely at the bird, didn’t know what it was but had the impression of a sparrow on steroids. It sat silently for a while, looking at me then towards the door. My mind drifted back to the things that were winding me up and a sense that there was some underlying fault in my life. The chepeeping began again. The bird looked straight ahead then went back into the refrain.
Chepeep! Chepeep! A pause. Chepeep! Chepeep! A pause. Chepeep! Chepeep!
It carried on. I let my gaze drift towards the far wall, staring at but not really focusing on an intricate mosaic. I was ready to surrender to the gloom, but it began to break up, shreds of the unhappy thoughts peeling away to float and then dissolve in my mind. The bird’s refrain became more prominent, not louder but settling deeper into my mind.
I gave in to it. It had a soothing effect, not too loud, now not at all shrill, its steady pitch and repetition easing my brain into its gentle rhythm. It was like a religious chant, without words but focused on the ritual of the sound, exuding a mild aura of something spiritual. I stopped staring at the mosaic wall and began to feel the emptiness of the room, just me and the bird in our own space, and an idea that it was allowing me to share in a quiet expression of joy. I felt a sensation of pleasure, and that there was no good reason to give those gloomy thoughts any space in my mind. I looked up and saw the bird had tilted its head towards me, as if acknowledging that we were sharing a special moment.
Then it went quiet, we both looked at each for what seemed like a minute, and I was conscious of a smile on my face. Then the bird jumped away from the wall and flew out of the door. I sat alone in the room, relaxed in a sense of peace.
After a while there were footsteps by the door and two women appeared, looking around then towards with me with expressions that seemed apologetic. I smiled, stood up and moved towards the door, allowing them to step into the centre of the room and reckoning they wouldn’t get what I had just enjoyed. I crossed the garden and walked through other rooms towards the museum’s exit.
I felt lighter. It didn’t matter if Ellie wasn’t in the mood to do much by mid-afternoon, and I’d be happy to sit on the riad’s terrace with some tea and a book. Maybe I wouldn’t be in my job for much longer, but I had a good CV and a couple of contacts in other companies who had hinted that I could join them. I remembered talking to a neighbour in our block about another big service that had been cut in half once all the leaseholders complained. And I might have drawn blanks with a few literary agents, but I had only approached about a quarter on the spreadsheet I had created. Things had worked out for me in the past and the odds were that they would do so again.
I left the building and turned into the crowded lane of the souk, seeing a way through the people and now enjoying the colours and sounds. I didn’t hear anything from behind, not the sound of the moped’s motor, until I paused, someone shouted and I looked around to see it coming straight at me. My eyes met with those of the rider, then he swerved with his foot on the brake and slid into a table topped with copper teapots and painted glasses. Everything crashed, the shopkeeper screamed and the moped rider yelled what sounded like a big Arabic F U. He squirmed out from under the bike, clutched at his shin and the shopkeeper yelled at him. Everyone around them stopped, stood back a couple of feet and watched as the shopkeeper kicked the moped and the rider shouted at him. I noticed one of the onlookers smiling, heard a round of excited chatter and in the background somebody laughed. I watched for half a minute, until the moped rider pushed himself up, turned his head and caught me with an accusing look. I decided it was time to leave, turned and walked away, still hearing the sound of the moped’s engine and the two men shouting, along with another voice, from around the rooftops of the alley.
Pic by author